Unique Bella does what's needed in Santa Ysabel
Story and photos by Scott Shapiro
It was not just another stroll in the park, but the Kentucky Oaks favorite found the winners’ circle yet again.
Saturday afternoon’s Santa Ysabel Stakes looked like a one-horse race on paper, but instead was a two-horse battle in the lane.
Don Alberto Stable’s star three-year-old filly Unique Bella was tested for the first time in three graded stakes efforts at “The Great Race Place,” but in the end the Jerry Hollendorfer filly was too much for late-running Abel Tasman and four other rivals in capturing the 50th running of the Grade 3, 1 1/16-mile event.
The start of the Santa Ysabel was far from ideal for the heavy 1-9-favorite. The daughter of Tapit broke a bit flatfooted from her inside post and then was a handful for Hall of Famer Mike Smith before they entered the first turn. The veteran jockey was unable to relax his filly and instead had little choice but to forcefully move her between horses to the lead.
Once Smith got Unique Bella into the clear she took the lead and appeared set for another romp, but second choice Abel Tasman and jockey Joe Talamo had other ideas.
The winner of the Grade 1 Starlet at Los Alamitos was 9 1/2 lengths back after a half-mile, but made up a ton of ground on the far turn and nearly came even with the favorite midstretch before being repelled in the final eighth of a mile. It was an impressive run from the Simon Callaghan trainee, but the class of Unique Bella was too much for the only other graded stakes winner in the field.
The big question going into the Santa Ysabel was whether the connections of Unique Bella would continue to take on her own gender moving forward or instead consider racing against the boys with another dominating win.
While Unique Bella was able to overcome a less than ideal voyage, as well as turn away serious competition from another graded stakes winner, chatter about pointing to the Kentucky Derby instead of the Kentucky Oaks is likely to subside with just a 2 1/4-length victory against questionable competition.
Hollendorfer furthered this in post-race interview declaring, “I don’t have any thoughts about running her against the boys, but some other folk’s do I guess.”
In addition to the usual deflection of Kentucky Derby chatter, the “Dorf” was also hardly willing to commit to the first Friday of May at Churchill Downs despite stating that “we have a very talented filly and we’d like to look at the Kentucky Oaks.” The Hall of Fame conditioner did however state “the Santa Anita Oaks is our next point race. It’s a perfect progression.”
The Santa Ysabel victory for Unique Bella was not as flashy as a couple of her recent scores, but the win did illustrate that she can overcome adversity, as well as respond when a challenge is presented.
Moving forward I am concerned how she may react if drawn inside against a larger field or in a tight spot on the backstretch, but on this Saturday she did what she needed and will once again be the heavy favorite in the Santa Anita Oaks next month if all goes as planned.